Intersections: A short visit to Fresno brings things full circle

I've been determined to go to Fresno for a long time. When I was younger, I used to browse through shipping labels at swap meets, and came across beautifully designed orange and peach labels from forever ago that hailed from the San Joaquin Valley.

It was probably at that point that my curiosity about the mysterious "middle" of our state solidified. What was this place that provided an entire country's bounty of fruits and vegetables? Who lived there, and why didn't I know anything about it?

I've driven up California on several occasions, and that long, arid drive has become a pastime of mine — part therapy, part adventure. I've visited Gorman, Weed, Yreka and made sure to stop at "Pea Soup Andersen's" in Santa Nella on every visit.

But this time, as I made my way up to Oakland last week for a story, I was determined to make a stop in Fresno.

Why Fresno? As my host for the night said, "In Fresno, there's nothing to see and nothing to do."

She might be right, considering that Fresno has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and pretty dismal air quality, among other things. However, even her genuine statement couldn't put a damper on my excitement about being there, an excitement that seemed to stem from my affection for obscure cultural discovery.

Lest you think that Armenian immigration to America began and ended with Glendale, Fresno has more than 100 years of Armenian history.

The first wave of immigration came in the mid-1890s and rapidly grew. Armenians became involved in agriculture, excelling in the production of raisins, melons and figs — their presence was often met with discrimination, bringing about assimilation.

Fresno's most famous son is William Saroyan, author and playwright who famously refused a Pulitzer Prize, an award that most writers, including this one, covet. He refused on grounds that commerce should not be judging the arts.

One of the first places I ventured into was Valley Lahvosh, a 91-year-old family company founded in 1922 by Gazair Saghatelian, a master baker who became well-known for creating different Armenian cracker breads.

This humble bakery, which provides cracker bread to venues across the United States, was tiny. Even with only two people in it, the walls felt like they were on the verge of closing in, but this added to its charm.

One wall was covered in hand-typed letters from the likes of Jerry Lewis and Lucille Ball, who had tried and loved Valley Lahvosh products. In another corner, I found books on sale from a favorite author.

Before I left to come back home, I stopped at Simonian Farms, a well-known attraction for tourists in the city who come to snap up fruits and vegetables on their way out of the city. The farm began in 1901, when Bagdasar Simonian left Armenia and settled in the area, creating a legacy that has lasted for four generations.

I picked up a bag of apricots to take back, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they came the closest to tasting like the unrivaled apricots whose taste never left my mouth two summers ago when I visited Armenia.

My brief encounter with Fresno felt like I had come closer to finding the beginning of a story I always happened to be in the middle of, a wheel of migration, identity, settlement, hardship and success and the varied emotion that comes with it all. It began long before me and will no doubt continue long after I'm gone.

It was a lesson in journeys, one that reminded me how similar we all are — wherever we end up, we all started from somewhere, with the same ambitions and dreams. While the notes of our songs may be different, the melodies — despite distance and circumstance — are often comfortingly familiar.


LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World